For the Vikings it was clear early this season that the defensive would be the weak link. The weak link became increasingly disappointing and frustrating as it clearly prevented the Vikings from progressing further in the playoffs and being a true Super Bowl contender.
While I don’t think it’s entirely down to Ed Donatell – he was clearly working with a sub-optimal roster in key position groups, including linebackers and defensive secondaries – and that impacted both results and system options. It was also the first year on a new scheme, and with that comes growing pains.
Still, Donatell didn’t seem as adaptable and nuanced in his approach, making Viking defenses predictable. The Vikings achieved the highest or second-highest zone coverage this season, and Donatell changed little from week to week. At the same time, it seemed like teeth were being pulled to get defensive defenders to play tighter coverage, while there wasn’t much creativity with pressure packs.
Zone coverage on early downs, with occasional man coverage on third downs depending on the situation, has been the predictable mainstay of coverage for Donatell this season, with not much pressure packs or creativity.
Donatell appeared to be rather passive in approaching Vic Fangio’s plan, with a supreme bend-but-don’t-break philosophy – giving up yards but hoping for enough turnovers, stops in 3rd/4th. Down and in the red zone to make it effective.
The defense was okay with giving up yards and finishing 31st in that category, but handed even with 9th in takeaways, 12th in 3rd, and 3rd in 4th it not to prevent a 28th place in allowable points. The reason for this was that they were also 21st in the red zone and allowed so many big plays that opposing attacks didn’t get to third or the red zone in their scoring drives as often. This resulted in a fifth-worst placement as a percentage of the permitted timed events.
This is the third straight season that the Vikings rank bottom of the league in both yards and points allowed, despite the change in scheme. That speaks to the need for fresh blood on the defensive end, but also a more multi-faceted approach than what Ed Donatell or Mike Zimmer have been able to offer in recent years.
Donatell was a first lieutenant under Vic Fangio for many years and worked mostly with defenders, but despite his years under Fangio he was a better position coach than a coordinator and knew his approach and style of play. Donatell is also 65 so his ability to change his approach at this stage is probably not the best.
However, the question is if Kevin O’Connell and the Vikings decide to move away from Donatell, who would they get to replace him?
Potential replacement for Ed Donatell as defensive coordinator
There are at least a few worthy candidates who could replace Ed Donatell should the Vikings decide to pull away from him. Unfortunately, some of the better options among younger, up-and-coming defensive heads are likely available for the Vikings. This includes:
- Brandon Staley, Chargers head coach. After the Chargers lost in the playoffs, there was speculation that he would be fired, but now it looks like he will continue in that role.
- Broncos defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero, who has ties to Kevin O’Connell and Kwesi Adofo-Mensah on stops at the Rams and 49ers. But Evero is currently conducting interviews as a head coach, and Denver blocked an interview request from the Falcons for her job as defensive coordinator. So he would only be available for the Vikings if he doesn’t get a head coaching job and gets fired from the Broncos after hiring a new head coach. That could happen, but it’s unlikely as he’s well-respected in Denver.
- Jim Schwartz. Neither young nor upcoming, but he was a front-runner already being hired by the Browns as their next defensive coordinator.
- Jerod Mayo, Patriots defensive back. Mayo has turned down interviews with the defense coordinator as the Patriots look to give him a bigger role to keep him on their staff.
Since these more prominent names aren’t available, or likely won’t be, let’s look at a few that are available.
Vic Fangio, former Broncos head coach
Going after Ed’s old boss, Vic Fangio, might be the first option for Kevin O’Connell and the Vikings. He may have been O’Connell’s first choice as defensive coordinator after he was hired, but Fangio chose to take a year off coaching after being fired as Broncos head coach.
Vic Fangio, 64, is the premier defensive guru in the NFL these days as his scheme has run rampant across the league this year. Some blame it for the low scoring throughout the season. But there are some pros and cons to having Fangio as the new defense coordinator for the Vikings as they move away from Donatell and hire him.
First, he’s 64 and his commitment to coaching and developing players in another stint with a new team is problematic. He could be some sort of Gary Kubiak walking in, installing his scheme (or modifying the Donatell version of his scheme) but not staying with it long, leading to a lack of continuity. He doesn’t have anything to prove at this point, and that’s not always a good thing.
On the other hand, he’s had success everywhere since San Francisco over a decade ago and was able to take the Vikings’ defense to a notable improvement, being a more skilled hand at defending, game planning and making the necessary adjustments to his scheme.
Fangio has applied for the Falcons and Panthers defensive coordinator jobs and is also being considered as a potential replacement for DeMeco Ryans at San Francisco if he lands a head coaching job. If Ed Donatell gets fired, he may well join Fangio wherever he ends up. The fact that Fangio would be interviewing to replace his longtime assistant in Minnesota would be a bit awkward I would imagine for Fangio, making things a little more complicated for him when he ends up in Minnesota.
Jim Leonhard, former U of Wisconsin interim head coach, defensive coordinator
- Leonhard, 40, has been the defensive coordinator at the University of Wisconsin since 2017 and has an impressive record. Since taking on the defensive coordinator, Wisconsin’s defensive has been in the top 5 in the following categories: Scoring Defense, Total Defense, Rushing Defense, Passing Defense, Pass Efficiency Defense, Opponent’s Completion Percentage, and Opponent’s Down Conversion Percentage Third. Last season, the Badgers ranked #1 in total defense and rushing defense nationally. Yet the question that arises for all successful college coaches is whether they can repeat this success in the NFL.
He is considered a defensive guru, using NFL-style concepts at the collegiate level, and is considered a top candidate for defensive coordinator positions in the NFL. This is how Leonhard in Wisconsin is described schematically:
Leonhard is widely regarded as one of the best defensive coordinators in all of college football. While he employs a 3-4 basic scheme, his defense employs a variety of fronts, with a 2-4-5 design regularly employed against passing teams. Leonhard is known for using a variety of stunts and blitz packs to aggressively engage attacks while keeping his defensive backs in man-to-man cover. That’s not to say he never uses zone coverage, but Leonhard uses a lot of movement and deflection to keep tabs on attacks regardless of coverage.
Leonhard is an incredibly intellectual play-caller and one of the brightest people on the Wisconsin program. Players frequently emphasize how he can make the intricate nuances of reading offenses and learning new techniques easy to understand.
One of its strengths is its adaptability. Leonhard has shown a willingness to adjust his defense to staff each year, which has helped maintain Wisconsin’s strong defense year after year despite changing players each season. Still, every college coach wonders if they can have the same success at the NFL level as they did at the college level.
Leonard could be a good fit for Vikings as they have more and more younger players that need development. He would also likely take a very different approach defensively than Donatell or Zimmer have done in recent years, judging by his approach in Wisconsin.
Sean Desai, assistant head coach/assistant defense for the Seahawks
Desai is widely regarded as the top defenseman in the NFL but is more uncertain as a leader with just one season as defensive coordinator with the Bears in 2021. The Bears had a top passing defense that year and finished 6th but still 22nd in points allowed, in part due to turnovers from the Bears’ offense that year.
Steelers Defense Assistant Brian Flores
Flores spent ten years under Bill Belichick in New England before becoming head coach in Miami. His firing there has led to lawsuits against the team and the league, which are still ongoing. While Flores served in many positions as a defensive coach with the Patriots over many years, he was never really a defensive coordinator as he rose from linebacker coach to head coach in Miami. But he is seen as an experienced, strong defender with a close connection to his players who can excel in the right situation.
There are other candidates as well, including internal candidate Mike Pettine, and various position coaches from other teams in the league. It’s harder to read a lot about these coaches who don’t have a track record, but there might be some good opportunities among them.
Jim Leonhard Probably the best choice available
Although Vic Fangio is the most qualified pick there is, I have a feeling he will look elsewhere for opportunities and wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up in San Francisco. 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans is a top coaching prospect, and it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to see him poached by the 49ers early this offseason. The 49ers, where Fangio previously trained, would be an ideal place for him to land with a top defensive roster and team already in place.
So if Fangio is a less likely candidate for an opening as Vikings defensive coordinator should there be one, then Jim Leonhard is probably the best choice available, at least among the younger up-and-coming varieties, although it’s unclear which direction Leonhard will take from the separate badgers. He turned down the job at Packers DC two years ago. He has been named as a possible candidate for defensive coordinator for Alabama, but there are no clear ties to an NFL team at this time. Leonhard played as a safety in the NFL for ten years before he got into coaching.